Photo by Smithsonian Institution Libraries on Flickr.

Jim, a homeowner in Columbia Heights who wants to add onto his row house, might be in trouble. New rules limiting homeowners’ ability to divide a house into more than two units or build a “pop-up” on top just got even stricter as DC’s Zoning Commission took its final vote.

Responding to neighborhood outcry about row houses being converted into three, four, and more units by adding onto the back or top, last year the Office of Planning (OP) proposed rules to limit houses in what’s called the R-4 zone to only two units, along with some other restrictions.

The DC Zoning Commission held its public hearing and a vote. At that time, the commission voted, 3-2, to accept some of the DC Office of Planning’s recommendations to further limit zoning in lower-density rowhouse zones, but not all. It left the right to make three or four units in a house, if the zoning already allowed it (only on larger-than-usual lots).

Rules change at the end of the line

Typically, the Zoning Commission then publishes its vote in the DC Register for a required 30-day comment period and takes “final action” confirming its initial vote. But instead, on Monday night, Peter May, the representative from the National Park Service, changed his vote on a key provision to only allow two units in a row house without a special exception hearing before the zoning board.

Also, the Office of Planning recommended, and the Zoning Commission supported, making the rules retroactive to July 17 of last year, when the commission “set down” the case. Anyone who has filed plans to add onto a rowhouse beyond the new limits between then and now may not be able to move forward. (Some people with plans from before February 1, 2015 can still proceed.)

OP also recommended expanding new rules that limit changes to a house’s turret, or changes that might block a neighbor’s chimney or solar panel, to all houses in R-4 zones, not just those with owners contemplating a pop-up or rear addition. Coming during the final comment period, this means that it will affect many more homeowners than the proposals did during the actual hearings.

The changes came after sustained lobbying from anti-pop-up activists, who got many homeowners to write into OP and the Zoning Commission during the comment period, resolutions from several Advisory Neighborhood Commissions, and a letter from Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau.

Is housing supply an issue, or not?

According to reports, much of the debate centered around whether DC needs more housing to maintain affordability, or at least slow the rapid rise in housing prices.

Member Marcie Cohen argued, as she has in the past, for zoning rules that allow for more housing in the District. She said, “We’re a growing city. We need to have the flexibility to enable other households to come into neighborhoods.” Anthony Hood, the longtime chairman of the commission and (like Cohen) a mayoral appointee, disagreed.

Hood said,

A lot of the stuff we say up here is shuckin’ and jivin’. This connection to affordable housing, I have not seen it yet. It’s not a reality. I have young people that work with me now telling me that they need to move to Silver Spring, so let’s be real. What are we really doing?

Vincent Orange expressed a similar sentiment, taking exception to my critique when he tried to impose a moratorium that would have gone even farther than this zoning case. He said, as he withdrew his proposal, that he didn’t know of any poor people living in pop-ups.

Indeed, pop-ups and much other new construction in “hot” row house areas of DC is indeed luxury housing, because the cost of new construction is very high. The question is whether new housing will relieve pressure on other, older housing elsewhere, but this is an indirect and not vary tangible connection.

Therefore, as with most development debates, the argument here is between residents who feel very passionately that a project is having an impact on their own neighborhood, developers, and people who talk about a much more abstract supply concern.

The Office of Planning, for its part, does not often connect the two. OP planners did not discuss how this proposal would affect the overall housing supply, nor did it with changes to water down the zoning update (which, by the way, is now in its comment period).

DC needs a larger conversation about housing supply. Pop-ups, ultimately, are a very small part of that one way or the other. Piecemeal new zoning restrictions, or piecemeal new developments, won’t deal with it. But in recent years there have been controversies over tall buildings downtown, significant changes to commercial corridors, pop-ups, basement and carriage house apartments, big new developments like McMillan, and most every other method for adding housing. It’s gotta go somewhere.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.